Some people are great at keeping secrets, some are just awful. Which are you? Today we talk about an English idiom that’s used to describe the act of telling a secret. We’ve included lot’s of practice sentences and explain how to use it best.
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There is just no point in Adept English if real English language students are not being helped by what we do. So when I get a message on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/adeptenglish/ from one of the many students who listen to our podcasts, or have bought one of our courses and hear that they have passed a test or applied successfully for a new job that required English speaking I’m thrilled.
Today it was Alejandro:
Makes me so happy reading that. Thanks Alejandro for believing in our system of learning and well done to you! Your hard work paid off. Good luck to you.
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How about today we look at an idiom, something that we use all the time in the UK? If you remember, idioms are things we say, expressions or phrases that we use in English, which have a literal meaning, but which also have another meaning, which isn’t clear from the words used. So idioms need special attention because they can give you difficulty if you’re learning English. And we do use them a lot.
What about the expression in English ‘to spill the beans’? Have you heard that one? Well, let’s have a look at vocabulary first of all. The verb ‘to spill’ or the noun ‘a spill’ - that’s S-P-I-L-L. If you imagine having a very full cup of water, it’s full right to the top. Well, if you move that cup of water, especially if you move it quickly, some of the water is going to come out – and that would be a spill. Wine is often a drink which gets spilt – can’t imagine why! Beer is the same! But it’s quite possible to spill coffee or tea, or any other liquid. Or we even use ‘spill’ for things which might flow like a liquid if there are lots of them – like balls or seeds, say. You might hear reports of a spill on a motorway – it might be milk or diesel all over the road, causing a hazard, causing danger. Or you can have an oil spill in the sea, causing harm to birds and fish. Not good.
What about beans, B-E-A-N-S? Not to be confused with ‘B-E-E-N’. Well, beans are a vegetable, something you eat and there are lots of different types of beans. In Mexican food, there are kidney beans – what you find in chilli con carne. In French cuisine, you’ll come across haricot beans - ‘des haricots’. In Chinese food, you’ll come across what we call ‘black beans’ or ‘black bean sauce’.
So beans of one type or another have made their way into most types of food in the word. In the UK, we like what we call ‘baked beans’ - these are beans in tomato sauce, which come in a tin, in a can – and you can eat them on toast, on toasted bread. Beans on toast may be what you have for lunch when it’s cold. With tomato ketchup, of course!
Anyway, ‘spilling the beans’ – so the vocabulary, the words are hopefully clear to you now. But when we use this phrase, we’re not usually talking literally about spilling some beans on the floor. Usually when someone says to you ‘to spill the beans’, they mean something different. ‘Spilling the beans’ means ‘to tell secret information’, to tell things which perhaps you shouldn’t be saying, something which you should be keeping secret. So if there is a surprise birthday celebration for your friend, and you let this information slip out, you tell him before the time, then that would be ‘spilling the beans’. If you have a meeting with your boss, and your boss tells you something that’s happening in your company, but says ‘Don’t tell anyone yet’, but you go straight away and tell your colleagues, then that would be you ‘spilling the beans’. If you have access to ‘the inside story’ about something, which usually means that you need to be discreet, you need not to tell it, then if you do tell the inside story to other people, that’s ‘spilling the beans’. Giving out more information than you should, or telling people information which you should keep secret. Another more old fashioned way of saying this, you might say someone has ‘let the cat out of the bag’, they’ve let the secret out! I think we say ‘let the cat out of the bag’, because once a secret, a piece of information is told, you can’t untell it, you can’t ‘put the cat back in the bag’. Or not very easily.
A photograph of a man holding a baby you cannot tell the gender of the baby. Used to help explain English grammar she, he and they.
The meaning of ‘to spill the beans’ has also developed slightly. Sometimes people might say to you ‘Come on. Spill the beans’. And what they mean here, is not necessarily that they want you to tell them something which is indiscreet, which shouldn’t be told. What they mean here is ‘I want to hear all about what happened to you. I want to hear all about what happened, and how you felt about it – and how you feel now’. Open it up to me, tell me all about it, I want to hear, partly because I’m curious, I want to know, but partly because I want to be there to listen to you, to support you. If you’re with someone you know really well, this phrase ‘Come on, spill the beans’, may be shortened still further. Someone might say to you ‘Come on, spill’, which means ‘Come on. I’m listening – tell me all about it!’ So it still has the older, more negative meaning of telling something which is meant to be a secret, but there’s a less negative meaning also. ‘Spill the beans’ means ‘Tell me how you really feel about this, tell me all about it’.
So what about a bit of practice using these phrases? Try repeating these phrases after me for pronunciation practice. I’ll say them three times.
- He was in trouble at work for spilling the beans about the new project.
- My daughter let the cat out of the bag about my sister’s surprise party.
- Come on, spill the beans. I want to know all about how your interview went!
I hope that’s helpful and I hope now you’ll understand the meaning of ‘to spill the beans’ or ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ when you hear them used. Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/be-in-the-act-of-doing-something https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/28093/origin-of-spill-the-beans